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Paula Yoder-McMahon is at the front line of healthy food trends

Paula Yoder-McMahon cut her teeth in the restaurant business before becoming a food broker who worked with retailers across the East Coast. For the last five years, she has been category manager for speciality, ethnic, health and natural products at Tops Markets.

It’s up to her and her six-member staff to spot and nurture healthy food trends and food-makers for the 159-store supermarket chain headquartered in Williamsville.

“Everybody has to eat, so you always have a job in the food business,” says Yoder-McMahon, a married mother of two adult children and a Buffalo State College business graduate who lives in the Town of Tonawanda.

She is the point person when it comes to testing new store products and concepts in her food categories, deciding what products in those categories are sold and offered at discount prices, and rolling out related educational information to help shoppers eat healthfully and locally.

What sort of education does someone in your shoes need?

Business, a nutritional background, but really, at the end of the day, I think, you need to have a passion for food. You could be a chef, you could be a salesperson in the food business, you could be a spokesperson in the company. It’s wanting to communicate the things that you see and you learn, and the trends that you discover.

What were some of the more interesting products you brokered?

We sold Dinosaur BBQ outside the Syracuse market, so we built that brand. It’s exciting to see the restaurant is coming to Buffalo (on Franklin Street).

Give me an example of what you do.

My desk (foods category) is really the trendsetting desk for Tops Markets. We identify products and trends, and we know that two to three years down the road, it’s becoming mainstream. … An example for us would be gluten-free. We were pioneering gluten-free three to four years ago. When the big manufacturers come on board, such as General Mills, that’s a pat on the back for us and everybody on our side of the industry. That means we’ve done our job educating consumers, educating our fellow corporate employees, as well as the larger manufacturers.

You’re pretty confident this trend to avoid genetically modified foods is going to take off?

Absolutely. Coming up in October, we have a corporate initiative to start educating consumers on the Non-GMO Project (find out more at October is Non-GMO Month. (Corporate communications), as well as our advertising department, will be educating consumers on why they should be purchasing non-GMO.

What are some of the more interesting things that end up on your desk?

We’re working on holiday items right now. We just sent home a vegetarian roast. It’s made completely from grains. It cooks very similar to a roast but there’s absolutely no meat, no dairy, no animal products whatsoever. You have to be a food adventurer. We have a great network of people. Sometimes, we place samples out, and we do take things home and offer them to friends to see what their reaction is. We’re focusing right now on the vegan/vegetarian category. We see that as emerging trend. We’re starting to roll out four-foot sections in specific stores. …

We were recently at the Taste of East Aurora. We offered a flaxseed milk as well as coconut water, a beverage that’s really hot right now. We had so many consumers that hadn’t tasted it. Some were like, “Oh, I can’t taste this,” and others were like, “This is fantastic.” It all comes down to that taste profile, and it’s personal, very personal.

What standards does a grocery store or a chain use when it comes to buying organic?

We use industry standards. In order for something to be labeled “organic,” it must contain 70 percent organic ingredients. In our organic sections, we carry both natural and organic foods. The reason is it allows our customer to live the organic lifestyle, or, if they’re just entering into that lifestyle, sometimes the natural ingredients allow us to keep our costs and our retails down. It’s still a healthy product. The ingredients are cleaner; however, there is no standard. The industry and consumer is moving more toward organic, but it’s just the cost, the cost of sourcing ingredients, so you really have to offer a mix.

Can you give me a couple examples of businesses that Tops has fostered in recent years?

We have local companies such as Lewiston Jelly that’s produced in the Lewiston area that we sell just in the Buffalo and Erie (Pa.) markets. If customers ask, we can also sell down into Syracuse. … Tipton Mills is a coffee we are selling. It’s produced here in Buffalo. They also supply us with organic chocolate sauce. They’ve moved on and sold product in other states.

Any organic or natural products that you have discovered that are part of your diet?

Kind bars, we’ve been selling for a few years now. It’s a healthy nutritional bar that’s nut and seed based. It’s a good gluten-free alternative.

See story on Page 10 on the NuVal program, which rates foods sold by the chain on a nutritional